Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Using self directed learning to develop and teach a new course

Eamon Murphy
School of Social Sciences and Asian Languages
Curtin University
    During semester two last year, I ran, for the first time, a new course on Middle East history. I did not have specialised knowledge of the history of the region and so had to learn along with the students. To enhance the quality of student learning and to make my task of running the new course easier, I applied principles of self directed learning to the restructuring and teaching of the course. Facilitating self directed learning took the form of reducing subject content, using lectures for contextualising background knowledge rather than simply for supplying information, making students responsible for their own learning in tutorials, and giving students the opportunity to research their own essay topics.

    The outcomes were very pleasing. Not only was my role of subject controller made much easier but, more importantly, the quality of student learning was greatly enhanced. The paper will argue that using self directed learning to traditional teaching strategies involves a total approach. Reducing content makes student learning more meaningful and deeper. Assessment strategies must encourage and reward independent, self directed learning. Tutorials need to be facilitated in such a way that students have genuine responsibility and power to learn with their peers. Crucial to the success of self directed approach was being honest and open with the students, sincerely validating and respecting student opinions and trusting students to take responsibility for their own learning.

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With the retirement from the university of the former unit controller, I volunteered to take over as unit controller of Middle East history this year. My teaching experience in Middle East history was very limited having just tutored in the unit the previous year. In addition, I had no specialist knowledge of the history of the Middle East. With the aid of a grant from the University's Centre for Educational Advancement, I totally redesigned the unit shifting the focus from teacher centred and teacher directed to one that was much more student centred and self directed. The new approach involved a total restructuring of the course: the content, assessment and mode of instruction.

Theoretical underpinning for the changes

The changes were firmly grounded in both theory and practice. Candy (1991; 1994) discusses how undergraduate courses can encourage life long learning by redesigning traditional courses to focus on self directed rather than teacher directed learning. Brookfield (1985) emphasises the importance of the affective domain, helping learners to develop confidence and to take risks. He also warns that we need to recognise that many students lack the independence and confidence to be successful self directed learners. Brockett and Hiemstra (1985) stress the importance of getting self directed learners to reflect on what they are learning. All the writers emphasise the crucial importance of creating an atmosphere of openness and trust in the classroom. In addition, critical thinking skills are considered to be essential for self directed learning.

My philosophy and teaching practice, developed in four books (Murphy 1998; Radloff and Murphy 1993; Bertola and Murphy 1993; Murphy 1985), have been guided by Cross (1981), Knowles (1975) and others who state that in self directed learning the teacher should be a manager of the learning experience not just an information provider.

Course changes to facilitate self directed learning

Changes to the content

The major change I made was in drastically limited the amount of content that we covered during the semester. In so doing I was guided by Ramsden (1992: 71) who states "Overloading syllabuses with content leads to poor learning." The content of the old course provided a very broad overview of the history of the Middle East during the long 150 year period from the struggle for reform in the Ottoman Empire (1840) up to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait (1990). My experience in tutoring the old curriculum was that Australian students with little knowledge of the geography or history of the Middle East found the time span too long and the range of topics too broad to comprehend. Consequently, much of their learning was not integrated and thus deep learning was not facilitated. To help overcome this problem, I greatly limited the amount of content focussing on a much narrower time span: the 42 year period from the foundation of Israel in 1948 to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Changes to the mode of instruction

The unit has in the past been taught in a traditional manner being largely teacher centred. Two lectures were given a week. These lectures were very heavily content based with the students being provided with copious notes and facts. One tutorial was given a week. This was based around a tutorial question and a reading list. Students discussed the topic being guided by the tutor. In effect, many the tutorials became teacher centred with the tutor dominating the discussion, as many of the students did not do the required reading.

The new mode of instruction was much student centred, designed to promote deep, self directed learning.

Changes to lectures

The lectures helped frame and focus the students' learning rather than providing the answers. Rather than being heavily factual as in the past, the new lectures provided a broad overview of major themes or specific topics or explained key difficult key concepts, such as differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam. In addition, I used the lecture periods to discuss different perspectives and interpretations of events. Some of the lecture sessions were devoted to watching and discussing videos such as The Crusades.

Introduction of the learning journal

The learning journal was critical for developing reflective, self directed learning.

The learning journal consisted of materials collected regularly throughout the semester and included the following:


The eight tutorials were student centred with the emphasis on collaborative learning. During tutorials students initially discussed in small groups the guide questions each week. These questions drawn from the textbook provided an overview in which to discuss critical incidents. I acted as an information source only on rare occasions where students asked for clarification. In addition, each student gave a 20-minute presentation on one aspect of the tutorial. My main role in tutorials was that of group facilitator rather than the expert.

The following is a sample of the tutorial guide questions:

  1. The main reasons for the rise of the Palestinian guerrilla organisations as an independent force in the Arab world were

  2. The Israeli colonisation drive along the Jordan Valley in 1968 was designed to

  3. The Palestinian National Covenant adopted in 1968 had two main goals:

  4. What was significant about the Battle of Kerameh in March 1968?

Changes in assessment

As Ramsden (1992) and others have told us, how we assess will determine how and what our students learn. The new assessment structure was designed to encourage deep, self directed learning and reward the students who worked consistently throughout the semester.

Previous assessment (typical of traditional teacher centred assessment)
Tutorial preparation and participation10%

The new assessment
Tutorial presentation10%
Learning Journal30%
Research essay30%
Review essays examination30%

The learning journal helped students read with more direction, gave students the opportunity to discuss their ideas with the peers, to work consistently throughout the semester and to reflect regularly on their learning. The research essay gave students the opportunity to develop their own research question, find their own sources of information, critically evaluate their sources and write a well reasoned, logically argued essay. The review essay examination was a take home examination with questions that encouraged students the opportunity to draw together major themes of the unit.

Evaluation of the unit

Learning Journals

The most valuable source of information was the students' learning journals. These journals provided a week by week record of the students' readings, summaries of tutorial discussions and reflections on their learning. The learning journals were a extremely rich source of qualitative data on student learning achievements, particularly changes in attitudes and skill development over the semester. Analysis of the journals showed that most students had very well integrated the content

Research Essays

The research essay was an excellent tool for testing critical thinking skills. Instead of giving students a list of essay questions, I encouraged them to develop their own topics, which they then discussed with me and amended if necessary. They also located their own sources. To develop their information search strategies, I arranged with the University's librarians to run a class on using electronic sources. The research essays were analysed under a series of headings using a standardised essay feedback sheet. Headings include the following: the selection of topic, collection of sources, analysis of sources, development of argument. The student essays were compared with essays written under the old unit structure and with Distance Education students working under the old curriculum. In most cases the quality of analysis, argument and style was much better that those written in previous years.

Student Questionnaire

Student perceptions of achievements through a structured questionnaire complemented and balanced my perceptions. I designed the questionnaire to test their perceptions of how successful they felt the learning outcomes were to them as individuals. The following is a summary of the results:
  1. The tutorials in this unit have helped me become a more independent, confident learner.
    Strongly agreeAgree NeutralDisagreeStrongly disagree

  2. The assessment used in this unit has helped me become a more independent, confident learner.
    Strongly agreeAgree NeutralDisagreeStrongly disagree

  3. Being able to develop my own essay research topic and find my own the sources has helped me become a more independent, confident learner.
    Strongly agreeAgree NeutralDisagreeStrongly disagree

  4. The background lectures have helped me better understand the modern history of the Middle East.
    Strongly agreeAgree NeutralDisagreeStrongly disagree

  5. This unit has encouraged me to think for myself and to form my own opinions.
    Strongly agreeAgree NeutralDisagreeStrongly disagree
As the above shows, all the students considered that the course had helped them become more independent, self directed learners.

Personal Reflective Journal

After each tutorial I wrote up my reflections and what I perceive to be the student achievements. As a participant observer in tutorials, I regularly analysed how students worked collaboratively and how their confidence and willingness to participate in tutorial discussions developed throughout the semester.


The outcomes of the revised course were excellent. All the evidence strongly indicated that the students learnt more, learnt better using deeper learning strategies, were more enthusiastic and developed higher quality learning skills than in the previous year. As course controller, I found that I was able to learn along with the students providing advice and support when needed but leaving the responsibility for the students' learning largely with them. I found the experience much more enjoyable and relaxed than in the more teacher directed courses that I have taught in the past.

The success of the new approach was based on very careful planning before the semester started. It involved taking a holistic approach in which content, assessment, and teaching strategies were all integrated to provide a structure where the students were encouraged and rewarded for becoming more self directed learners. It also involved me being open and honest about my limited teaching and research experience in Middle East history and in my willingness to learn along with them and to value their ideas, analyses and interpretations.

Major learning outcomes of the changes:

Applying self directed learning principles to developing and teaching a traditional history course made the learning experience for both lecturer and students much richer. Although the course still looked like a traditional teacher centred history course, the change in emphasis from teacher directed to student directed profoundly changed the dynamics of teaching and learning and made a very marked positive impact on the learning of the students.


Brockett, R. G., and Hiemstra, R. (1985). Bridging the Theory-Practice Gap in Self Directed Learning. In S. Brookfield (ed), New Directions for Continuing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bertola, P. and Murphy, E. (1994). Tutoring at university. Bentley: Paradigm Books.

Candy, P. (1991). Self direction for lifelong learning: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Candy, P. (1994). Developing lifelong learners through undergraduate education. Canberra: Australian Govt. Pub. Service.

Cross, K. P. (1981). Adults As Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. (1975). Self Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. New York: Association Press.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge

Murphy, E. (1998). Lecturing at university. Bentley: Curtin University.

Radloff, A. and Murphy, E. (1993). Teaching at university. A DEET National Priority (Reserve) Fund Project, Curtin University.

Please cite as: Murphy, E. (2000). Using self directed learning to develop and teach a new course. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/murphy.html

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